Two things are required of us, here and now: to acknowledge our sins and to forgive others; the first, so that the second may become easier. For someone properly aware of his own behavior and its shortcomings will be the more forgiving to his fellow humans. And that does not mean forgiveness in words merely, but from the heart, lest in our resentment we turn the sword on ourselves. The more he has injured you, the greater the forgiveness of your own sin, in consequence.
Let us take care that we hate no one, so that God may still love us; so that even though we may be owing him a thousand talents he may yet be generous and merciful to us. Has someone offended you? Be merciful to him, then; do not hate him. Weep and lament for him, but do not show aversion. For it is not you who have offended God, but he; you will do well to put up with it. Recall how Christ was content to be crucified— and yet shed tears over those who did it. That must be your disposition also: the more you are wronged, the more you must lament for the wrongdoers. For it is we who profit from this— and greatly— but not they.
MISSIONARIES TO THE SECULAR WORLD: In this week’s column, Father Ron Rolheiser talks about a conference held by his order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which focused on mission to the secular world. The participants in the conference came to a number of conclusions that make for interesting reading. I will cite only one here:
Secularity is not the enemy, it's our own child, sprung from Judeo-Christian roots. Like any adolescent child, suffering from an understandable youthful grandiosity, it's not bad, just unfinished. Our relationship to it shouldn't be adversarial but one of solicitude. The "soil" of secularity is defined by Jesus in the parable of the Sower -- some ground is good, some hostile, some indifferent -- but the fact that some ground is hostile or indifferent does not absolve us from the mandate to keep on sowing.
RUNNING LOW ON CARDINALS: NCR’s John Allen notes that with a number of cardinals turning 80, the number eligible to vote in a papal conclave is dropping perilously close to the minimum 120. Expect Pope John Paul II to name another batch soon. Allen has some speculation about who might be next in line for a red hat.
For many Christians, that proposition has been sorely tested by September 11th. In some unscripted remarks offered yesterday, Pope John Paul II asked God to “show mercy and forgiveness for the authors of this horrible terror attack.” These remarks have proved controversial, even to many Catholics. Mark Shea has taken a lot of heat for defending the Pope’s comments. I’m with Mark on this one. It seems to me that the witness of scripture and tradition is solidly behind the idea that Christians are called to forgive their enemies, even in those cases where those enemies don’t seek to be forgiven.
Having said that, I will add that this is something I struggle with greatly. Last night, I was able—through clenched teeth—to pray that Osama Bin Laden and his comrades repent of the evil they have done and embrace the Gospel. But that is a very different thing than forgiving them.
The other problem I wrestle with is figuring out which acts I have the right to forgive and which I don’t. To the extent that the deaths of other human beings on September 11th harmed me—and I think they harmed all of us in some way—then my forgiveness becomes meaningful. But I’m not sure I have the right to forgive harms that were not done to me. I can forgive the killers of John Smith to the extent that Smith’s death diminishes me. But only Smith’s son can forgive the killers for the loss of his father. I simply don’t have the standing to do that.
I think this principle applies in other contexts as well, such as the current clerical sexual abuse scandal. In this week’s America, a woman who was raped by a priest suggests that those who have not suffered a particular harm may not have the right to forgive it:
Catholics have come forward in defense of priests who have been accused of child molestation years ago and have led exemplary lives ever since. These Catholics believe that victims should forgive and forget. In response to these Catholics I suggest that if they have not been abused, they have no right to counsel forgiveness of an abuser; and if they have not been abused, they have nothing to forget. Some years ago in an article on suffering published in U.S. Catholic, the Rev. John Shea suggested that only the sufferer has the right to interpret her own suffering. I would add that only the sufferer has the right to offer forgiveness.
I should add that I don’t completely agree with this writer. As Christians, we must all counsel one another to forgive, even if we have not personally suffered the harm in question. But we need to respect the fact that extending forgiveness is difficult, particularly when the harm suffered is great. We need to stand in solidarity with victims of suffering and pray with them and for them that God will heal them and give them the strength to forgive.
But there is wisdom in this passage as well. I think it goes to the heart of why so many of us find it difficult to even contemplate extending forgiveness to the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks, even though we have not personally lost a family member or friend. We don’t want to break faith with those who have suffered such losses. We fear that to extend forgiveness would be to betray the dead and those they have left behind.
One of the things that has helped me to be a more forgiving person is to remember that my forgiveness is not a judgment on the seriousness of the act. The people I forgive may not “deserve” to be forgiven. But I don’t “deserve” to be forgiven either, and yet God has forgiven me and demands that I do the same. Forgiveness is a recognition that judgment is ultimately in God’s hands, not mine. I trust in His judgment and in his justice.
The image [of the firefighters] was shocking, I believe, because it was profoundly counter-cultural. In American culture, the self is pre-eminent, celebrity and fame are pursued, and money is the ultimate (if not the only) measure of success and worth. But the firefighters’ actions flew in the face of these values. The men who raced into the Twin Towers, at risk to their own lives, were unconcerned with self, not seeking fame, and willing to perform heroic deeds without the promise of reward. Their actions were so deeply counter-cultural that they shocked us.
Moreover, the stories of the firefighters spoke to the part of us that recognises the deeply Christian image of the one who lays down his life for others. It is not difficult to draw a clear, bright line from rescue workers moving towards almost certain death in order to save others, to Jesus of Nazareth offering up his life for the salvation of mankind.
This is not to say that the rescue workers who lost their lives at the World Trade Centre were all saints. But that is the point: they were everyday human beings showing us the way that God loves. And something in us instinctively responded to these images of the divine, in the same way that we respond to a parable. God, I believe, was revealing himself in a clear way during a time of intense sadness and confusion.